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What Is Psychological Child Abuse?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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Psychological child abuse is the mental or emotional abuse of a child. With this type of abuse, the abuser does not hit or otherwise physically harm his child victim. Instead, he uses words, intimidation, manipulation, and the withholding of things the child needs or wants to abuse him. In fact, even such acts as withholding affection from a child and isolating him from those who love him can be considered child abuse. Unfortunately, psychological child abuse is often much harder to detect than abuse that is physical in nature, but many mental health experts agree that it is just as scarring.

When a child suffers psychological abuse, he won't have physical scars to show for it, but this doesn't mean that the abuse is not harming him. When a child experiences psychological abuse, he is harmed emotionally or mentally. In some cases, the abuse may even hurt his social development as well. Without physical evidence, a child is often at the mercy of his abuser for quite some time before someone notices and notifies authorities. In fact, many cases are never discovered, and some children spend their entire childhoods suffering from this type of abuse.

There are many types of psychological child abuse, including verbal abuse, such as belittling and name calling; intimidation; and isolation. Bullying or threatening as well as rejecting and shaming a child are often part of this type of abuse. Likewise, withholding affection can be abusive as well. Some abusers even ignore or refuse to communicate with a child as a way to abuse him. Additionally, this type of child abuse includes encouraging a child to participate in criminal activities, take drugs, or engage in acts that are considered self-destructive.

Since there are no physical signs to indicate psychological child abuse, concerned loved ones, mental health experts, social workers, and legal authorities look for other ways to identify victims. Some symptoms that may indicate such a problem include patterns of being too aggressive or abnormally passive. Children who seem too eager to please others or behave more like adults than children may suffer from psychological or other types of child abuse. Some victims of this type of abuse also behave as if they are much younger than they really are or seem too demanding. Additionally, some may seem withdrawn or suffer delays in their physical, mental, and emotional development — even suicide attempts can point to psychological child abuse.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon342889 — On Jul 24, 2013

@anon342822: I think you would benefit from seeing a therapist who specializes in treating adult victims of child abuse. You would also learn how to break that cycle you spoke of.

My cousin works for child services and after knowing what she's seen over the years, I'd believe nearly anything a child told me, no matter how "smooth" the parents are. Of course, sometimes children lie about abuse, but that's not common. And when the child tells the story over and over, that's a big red flag.

However, as an adult, you must understand that how teachers and other adults view child abuse has changed over the years. When I was in middle and high school in the early 80s, child abuse was still defined primarily as physical. It was tougher to get a finding for mental or emotional abuse. My dad taught special education, and his students were largely below the poverty line. He had a sixth sense about the ones who were being abused in any way, but he had been a teacher for a long time.

Nowadays, teachers are mandated reporters. That is, if they suspect any kind of child abuse, or if a student comes to them saying they've been abused, they are obligated by law to report it to children's services.

I have a real-life example. My top boss is a psychopath. He's wealthy, handsome, charming, glib, articulate... and completely without conscience. He has twin sons and I can almost guarantee those kids have been psychologically abused. No one in his upper class circle of friends would believe it if you told them, but those of us in the "under class" who work for him would. We may be the groundlings, but we would certainly believe it if his sons said their dad was a first class jerk who treated them like dirt. His wife must be a masochist or just loves the money. I don't know. But I do see where you're coming from, for certain. I'll bet the people your dad supervised at his job would have believed you. No one knows someone like the people who work for them.

Obviously, I believe you, and I feel for you. I sincerely hope you are able to get the healing you need in order to move on from your abuse and be a better parent. Good luck.

By anon342822 — On Jul 24, 2013

I am a victim of psychological child abuse. I am no longer a child, but I am now trying to get help again and hope and pray that someone believes me. I was never believed as a child, because my dad was such a smooth talker and made everyone believe it was me. I went to adults that I thought I could trust at school. I was always taught the adults at school were the "ones you could trust", but instead they went to my dad and I was the one with the bad behavior and punished for it rather than "helped". Even today, it is hard to prove. My son has gone through it as well with my dad, and I am cycling it through me as well, but I can pretend just as well as my dad can. I want to stop the cycle so my son can heal. But the evidence stills seems stacked against me.

No, I am not a serial killer, and I do have a lot of compassion. I cry when someone else is hurting. But do I step forward and help?

This kind of abuse is still the hardest to prove. Without physical evidence and witnesses, which is how the abuser likes it, proving the abuse is the hardest thing that any victim will ever have to do. There has to be a reason or the victim will just continue to go on and just pretend like it did not exist.

Unlike physical abuse, it does not stop when the abuser is not there. The abuser will continue to live in your mind. There is no running away from it. You have to find something worth fighting for to heal from it.

@anon302783: I feel your pain. It was like living in a war zone or prison camp. Now that you are out, do not pretend like it never happened. You will never really live until you heal. Others will find it and use it against you. This is the cycle and you must stop the cycle.

All others who talk about it, but have never experienced it, please remember that you were not there and to each and every one of us who has been, we are utterly alone. Would you really believe us? If you had a friend's child come to you and told you this, would you believe them? As a friend, your loyalty would lead you back to the parents, and you may be sweet talked into believing that the child is lying or misunderstanding what is going on. You would only make it worse for the child and teach the child that no adult can be trusted. This is what causes child to be devoid of caring: others who won't listen.

I do not believe that it is the psychological abuse that turns someone into a serial killer, but the lack of those who will listen to them. It is not mom or dad, who live within their own little world, but those who are outside who just don't care enough to listen.

Remember, it's not how you think of the parents, but of the child. If a child is lying about it, any parent who sees that you have love and concern for the child will understand when you do not send the child back.

By anon302783 — On Nov 12, 2012

Psychological abuse is insidious and can damage the mental well-being of people of all ages. Having grown up in a household where my parents were respected members of the community, no one would ever believe me if I told them that affection was frequently withheld from me, in particular when I was a teenager, and later on in life. This took a terrible toll on my mental health later on in life.

If you have children, don't bully them when they are at their most vulnerable. Tell them that you love them and care about them. That is all they need to and ought to hear from you. This is too hard for me to write as I wish now to let go of the experiences that undermined me. I do not with to give them any credit.

By drtroubles — On Nov 25, 2011

There seems to be a greater focus on how to stop child abuse these days and it is good to see so many resources going to get the facts about child abuse available to the public. I think a lot of people still feel like it would never happen to anyone they know.

I think one of the big wake up calls I had was when social services came by to remove the children from our neighbor's home. We were shocked to see the police there and learn that a child abuse report had been made against the family. I suppose you never really know what goes on behind closed doors.

These days I keep an eye on child abuse websites so I can learn more about how to spot the signs of child abuse. I know I want to watch for anything that may go on with my own kids, especially since they spend so much time outside the home.

By popcorn — On Nov 24, 2011

When I was in university I did some volunteering with one of the child abuse agencies in my hometown. It was a great experience working with one of the child abuse organizations because I really got a feel for how much work needs to go into preventing, identifying and supporting the victims of emotional child abuse.

I think that while many people are aware of laws on child abuse, and how physical violence affects children, they don't really get how bad psychological child abuse can be. It can really attack who a child is, and it can take years to repair the damage caused by negative parenting.

By shell4life — On Nov 24, 2011

@cloudel – You should call your local child protective services branch. They are the experts on handling child abuse cases, and they have the interest of the victim at heart.

When I found out that my neighbor was abusing her young daughter, I called this agency, and they sent someone out to their house that same day. They conducted an investigation and interviewed the child.

The agent had to get a court order before she could take the child away, but she did that rather quickly. Her investigation showed signs of obvious abuse, so the judge did not hesitate to demand that the parent give up the child.

By cloudel — On Nov 23, 2011

I need to know how to report child abuse. I teach piano lessons to a young boy, and I am convinced that his grandmother is mentally abusing him.

He's really sweet, but he's super shy. The first time he messed up during a lesson, he started to cry, because he was afraid I would punish him.

When I came to pick him up for practice one day, the front door was ajar. I heard his grandmother berating him and telling him that he would not get any supper that night because he had put a plate in the wrong cupboard.

I can't stand to let this go on. This sweet boy's parents died a few years ago, and his grandmother is the only family he's got left. He deserves to be in a loving home, and I want to make that happen.

Does anyone know who I should call? Do I go straight to the police, or is there some agency I should contact?

By wavy58 — On Nov 23, 2011

@OeKc05 - This is probably true, but I must point out that there are also many children who have suffered psychological abuse that end up to be fairly normal. My parents were cold, and they refused to show me any affection. However, I turned out pretty normal.

The one major effect that it had on me, besides making me really sad as a kid, was that it made me crave affection extremely. I went through a series of bad relationships just to have someone to hold. I couldn't bear to be alone and without physical touch.

I do have a ton of empathy for other people. I cry when I see someone hurting, and I feel their pain. It didn't warp my sense of caring.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 22, 2011

The psychological effects of child abuse run deep and can ruin a child's future. A kid with a particularly mean, manipulative parent could easily end up a serial killer.

The problem is that when children aren't shown enough affection and allowed to express their emotions at a young age, they grow up impaired in that area. Some of them may be unable to feel any concern for the feelings of others, and they may become totally self-centered.

People who kill have no regard for the life or feelings of their victims. I think that a large number of killers were psychologically abused as children.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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